Is Apple’s decision to let users download the latest version of Mac OS X for free a stupid decision or a very wise move indeed?

No-one was expecting Apple to make Mavericks free. While new iPads and MacBook Pros have been long rumoured – though it wasn’t a hard guess considering Apple’s previous release schedule and Intel’s recent upgrades – a free OS upgrade hasn’t been mooted by even the wildest ‘rumour’ ramblings.

At first glance this seems like just a way to lose the Apple money. While Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion was only £13.99, its sales of three million copies in the first four days brought the company nearly £42 million. Why would Apple ditch this revenue – and the more than followed it? For two reasons: because it will make more money in the long term, through upgrades and enhancing its brand by following the principles of what those at the cutting edge of business call experience design.

The price of Mac OS X upgrades have been dropping steadily over the years. The first Mac OS X cost around £100, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard cost £85, Mac OS X 10 10.8 Mountain Lion was £13.99. The churlish could say that this has reflected the dwindling number of high-profile new features that have been added with each new release – and they’d be right – but Apple’s strategy is more complex and subtle than that.

A free upgrade could be seen as a natural successor to this, and in line with the company’s iOS strategy – where upgrades from iOSx to iOS7 have been free. And this is where we find the real principles behind Apple’s decision for its desktop OS.

The real reasons Mavericks is free

Free iOS upgrades are a bonus to owners to current or recent iPhones or iPads. Those with elderly models don’t get the upgrade – so have another enticement to upgrade beyond the new hardware. In the middle are those who get the upgrade, but may see their current device become less useful because of the performance lag caused by the demands of the new OS.

For example, iOS 7 was well received by the majority of current iPhone 4S and 5 owners. iPhone 3 and 3S were out of the loop, but felt an extra pull to upgrade. iPhone 4 users were caught in the middle – able to upgrade but then saw their hardware slow down to a varying degree depending on what apps they use. Some saw a small lag that’s a gentle nudge to upgrade, while others saw a more noticeable slowdown that was probably a key reason why Macworld’s recent article on how to downgrade to iOS 6 was so popular (though Apple soon blocked this).

I suspect Mavericks will be an equally powerful driver for hardware upgrades. While we’re still in the initial testing phase of Apple’s new OS, I’m expecting that it will have a noticeable-but-not-too-painful negative impact on the performance of Macs just within the range of what you can install it on. If this helps convince enough users it’s time to upgrade, Apple may find it more profitable than charging £14 to those who would pay to upgrade (who are most likely to have newer hardware).

Apple’s all about the brand

Alongside this, the free upgrade is also a way for Apple to maintain and enhance its brand.

The understanding customers have of a brand isn’t just based on what they experience in the run up to making a purchase: from a company’s ads, website, social media feeds; what we in the press write about them; and the process you go through to buy their products and services to get what you need. The experience we have when using the product – and the value we derive from using it – has just as much influence on whether we’d buy from them again, and what we tell our friends, colleagues and peers (which is why designing products and creating brands around this is called experience design).

This may sound obvious, but it's something many big brands have only recently woken up to – in reaction to the understanding that things have changed. In the past their brand image was controlled by them (through advertising and marketing) and the press that writes about them. Now have to realise that their customers have a massive influence on it too – through Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels, blogs, user reviews on Amazon and a whole load of other ways that they can influence people they both know and don't know.

Giving Mavericks away for free makes current Mac hardware owners feel that they're getting more value out of their iMacs and MacBooks, improving their experience of the products and bolstering Apple's already high brand image.

(If you want to know more about experience design, I'd recommend the book Experience Design by Patrick Newbery and Kevin Farnham from design firm Method).